Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited back to the Push Conference in Munich, where I gave a presentation last year. As I listened to the presentations and mingled with guests and speakers, I noticed an unintentional theme kept cropping up, around how far digital design still has to go.
Early on Friday, Razan Sadeq gave an interesting talk about how Sherlock Holmes was the true father of user research, with his evidence-based approach to solving problems. She showed how user research not only helps to provide evidence to back up hypotheses about user behaviour, but also provides insights you otherwise simply wouldn’t have.
The problem is clients hardly ever want to pay for it. So most UX designers have got used to just getting by without, and still managing to do an OK job – which of course means the client thinks there’s no need for it. Round and round we go.
But if we don’t explore new avenues to find knowledge about the problems we’re trying to solve, we never improve things past a certain point, and we never produce anything truly innovative. Everything ends up something the same, because it’s all based around the same preconceptions, the same second-hand notions of what users want.
In an entirely unrelated subject, coder Markus Eckert spent 45 minutes extolling the beauty of custom easement curves.
Custom what now?
In days of yore, if you wanted something to move across a computer screen from A to B, the only option available to you was a straight line with a linear rate of movement throughout. No acceleration, no deceleration… no realism. Then people like Apple (I know they weren’t the first) started to understand the benefits of making on-screen objects behave more like their real-world counterparts, and before long they had inertia and friction and so on.
So an easement cuve is what you call the graph you get if you plot the rate of movement of one of these objects over time. They ease from their static position into movement, and ease back to a stop again.
Nowadays, it’s dead easy to use these in whatever you’re building, because most commonly-used code libraries have standard ones built in. You’ll even find them in Keynote so you can apply them to your whizzy slide animations.
The standard curves, are generally good enough for most people most of the time. Not Markus, though. He’s bored of them, so he makes his own. And he spent an entire slot talking about them. It was surprisingly fascinating, and some of his clever routines which make a page move like a curtain are seriously funky.
So what’s the theme?
It’s that a lot of people don’t think either of these things – user research or nerding about with physics simulation – are important.
But these people are fools.
Other fields of design are full of people like Markus. BMW employ 14 sound designers whose sole job is to come up with notification noises which befit the character of the car. And we all know how important the sound of a car door closing is to its perceived quality, which is why countless engineering hours have been spent over the years on getting it just right.
Perceived quality is a relatively new thing in digital interface design, though. Frankly, it’s a new thing in digital hardware design too, and much of it’s still horrible plasticky crap. But in a world where phones and computers and everything else are Good Enough in terms of functionality and speed, how do you differentiate your product from the crowd?
Maybe it’s by using custom easement curves. Or maybe it’s by paying more attention to your users. Or something else. But the point is these aren’t things you can cut corners on any more, because given a choice between two products of equal performance, the one with the higher perceived quality will win out in the customer’s eyes every time.
I recently did some work for a financial client in Italy. About the first thing the team did when the job began was to try to understand the current state of play. So as well as doing the obvious and checking out some banking websites, they sought to gain insights wherever they could by doing things like visiting branches, using cash machines, and most importantly, talking to customers of the bank.
Not exactly revolutionary stuff, right? And yet to get to do this is a rare privilege. Most clients won’t spring for the budget for that sort of caper – “When can we see the finished designs?” is their eternal refrain. They don’t see the value of it, don’t see how it can contribute to the final output. Just make us a website, please. You can do that, can’t you?
But by not doing this preliminary research they’re missing a great opportunity. In this particular case we picked up a few insights, sometimes by way of off-the-cuff remarks from interviewees, that went on to shape the entire nature of what we delivered. We ended up with a service that’s got some unique features that nobody else has got to offering yet, which will really make it leap ahead of the competition.
All because we spent a bit of time listening.